Iraq’s way out of sectarianism?

Iraqi people have proved to know which direction they want their country to go. Let’s hope Iraqi politicians will follow suit

Over the past few years, hardly a day has passed without Iraq being in the news for its precarious, worrying and dispiriting political developments – and last weekend made no exception. However, this time the news coming from the country did make an exception with respect to the usual trend of events. On Saturday, Baghdad became in fact the theatre of one of the most significant political events that have interested Iraq in the past few years, as the protest movement led by the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr entered the Green Zone and stormed the Parliament.

The mass led by al-Sadr took to the street and marched to the Green Zone to protest against a government that is failing to bring all the reforms needed and promised, and against a Parliament that is constantly putting itself on the way that leads to the reshaping of the Iraqi political system. In the last month, in fact, the Parliament rejected three times PM Abadi’s proposal to build a technocratic cabinet and move beyond the current sectarian system of appointment.

The current system was set up in 2003, in the aftermath of Saddam’s overthrown, to avoid the risk of another sectarian ruling and to guarantee representation to all the groups of a country whose religious and ethnic diversity has always been its most defining (and problematic) trait. Therefore, a system was designed according to which the country’s cabinet allocates a proportional percentage of positions to Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, and other minorities such as Christians, Turkmens, and Yazidis. Such a devised system, though, paved to way to patronage, corruption, and sectarian party politics and is now at the core of the Sadrists’ protests.

Pushing to introduce a cabinet in which ministers are appointed on the basis of their skills and expertise rather than their religious and ethnic affiliation, Sadr and his followers took to the street to peacefully protest against Abadi’s weakness vis-à-vis a system of privileges and corruption that many MPs are determined (and thus far have succeeded) to defend.

Far from being the expression of a merely Shia group, Sadr’s supporters have drawn the attention on the most pressing reality of Iraqi politics, namely the need to move beyond any form of sectarian identification in the political realm. Designed to ensure representation to each of the country’s group, the current system was nevertheless built on a major flaw that has condemned to violence and division the post-2003 Iraq: the distinction of politicians as Shias, Sunnis, Kurds…appointed to represent a specific sector of the Iraqi population. Such a system, inevitably strengthened the lines of division that have always threatened the stability and harmony of the Iraqi society and that under former PM al-Maliki paved the way to those sectarian tensions that a terrorist group such as ISIS managed to exploit at its full advantage.

Therefore, a political system in which a common Iraqi identity is encouraged, in which parties define themselves on the basis of their political and ideological views rather than on the basis of ethno-religious affiliation, and in which the need of ensuring representation to anyone is balanced with the need to appoint policy-makers on the basis of their skills and competences is the system Iraq shall aspire to. Only such a system can build a sustainable balance between political unity and religious and ethnic diversity.

The Iraqis who peacefully took to the streets on Saturday revealed they are ready for this reform and for their country to change. Now it’s the Parliament’s turn to stick to its duty and bring to Iraq the change it needs.

About the Author
Born in Milan, Italy, in 1993. Currently attending in Trento, Italy, a Master in International Studies. Deeply passionate about the Middle East, Israel, and the region's security dynamics since studying in 2014 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Author of a political blog and contributor for two Italian newspapers. Keen on travelling and discovering the world, she fell in love with Jerusalem, to where she is moving in September 2016.
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